The human-animal bond is an important part of our lives in many ways and for many reasons. Just ask Karen Sanchez, founder and executive director of Equine Assisted Therapy, Inc. in Centerburg.
The nonprofit organization, founded 20 years ago, is geared toward individuals with a variety of physical and cognitive disabilities. It uses horseback riding as therapy to help students work toward physical, cognitive, emotional and social goals through learning the skills involved in riding a horse.
“One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that it’s not just the students: it is their whole families who are impacted by this, and our volunteers,” Sanchez said of her facility’s work.
“One of the purposes of therapeutic riding is we are actually teaching the skills involved in riding,” she said. “What we pride ourselves on is that this isn’t just a pony ride.”
Benefits of therapeutic riding and the human-animal bond
Equine Assisted Therapy’s program uses eight sessions that each have a different theme. Lessons focus on encouraging riders to be independent and work toward goals that are set at the beginning of the session. A lesson can include grooming and tacking, crafts, formal riding instruction, games and exercises on horseback, sensory trail rides and horse management.
Sanchez said the balance required to sit on a horse helps with coordination, and there is something about the animal’s rhythm and gait that stimulates the brain, which can help improve speech.
“When you ride a horse, the horse moves your pelvis in the same up and down, side to side, and back and forth motion that happens when a person walks. For those who are unable to walk or have an altered gait, riding helps to strengthen core abdominal and trunk muscles,” she said.
Clients of Equine Assisted Therapy also have said they’ve experienced improved self-esteem, confidence, muscle strength and balance, posture, coordination, social skills, focus and concentration.
Sanchez said the bond formed between the clients and the horses is unique.
“Because horses are prey animals, they have kind of a sixth sense. They have this kind of energy field around them and are very perceptive of other animals, other beings. (They) kind of know that being’s intent. That is why sometimes horses are jumpy. They are very perceptive.”
The bond created between the students and horses plays a major part in the benefits of this therapy. That bond continues even when a horse is retired.
“I switched a student who had been riding a pony that was getting up there in age to a different horse. The pony started getting cranky during lessons when her old rider was on another horse,” Sanchez said. “She would be standoffish, but when he came and rode she would follow him around the paddock while he was getting his other horse and stand at the fence row and watch him. To this day when he comes to lessons, he stops to check on her at the neighbor’s house that we retired her to.”
A helping hand
Equine Assisted Therapy received a $10,000 grant from the Animals for Life Foundation in 2012. This grant allowed the nonprofit to maintain its level of therapeutic riding services and also helped with the purchase of two new horses.
“We take a lot of pride in our work. We’ve been here for 20 years and we’ve seen a lot of programs come and go. It’s a lot of work and it’s something that we have built from the ground up, and we have had a lot of years when things were very lean,” said Sanchez.
The Animals for Life Foundation works to share the value animals bring to human life and the care humans give their animals. Each year, grants are awarded to organizations, like Equine Assisted Therapy, that are promoting this mission and working hard to show the benefits of the human-animal bond.
More info: Find accredited therapeutic riding centers